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In King County’s new inquests, victims’ families see steps forward, police see 'overreach'

caption: A photo of the scene where Damarius Butts died is onscreen as Seattle police officer Joshua Vaaga provides inquest testimony.
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A photo of the scene where Damarius Butts died is onscreen as Seattle police officer Joshua Vaaga provides inquest testimony.
Video courtesy of King County

In King County, a jury is convened to consider the facts whenever someone dies in an encounter with law enforcement. This week an inquest jury delivered its findings in the death of Damarius Butts.

But this inquest was about more than Butts' case; it was King County’s first inquest since it revamped the process, spent years in litigation and saw its changes upheld by the Washington Supreme Court.

Attorneys for victims’ families welcome the changes, while police call the new process unworkable and unfair.

Damarius Butts, 19-year-old Black man, was killed during an encounter with Seattle police in 2017. Jurors unanimously found that all four Seattle police officers who fired their weapons at Butts followed their department’s policies and training, calling officers’ use of force “justifiable.”

The jurors agreed that Butts was carrying a handgun, committed an armed robbery of a convenience store, and then fled into the loading dock of the federal building where he and police officers exchanged gunfire. Two officers were injured and Butts was fatally shot.

This inquest was held in a conference room at the Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle’s Central District, and was King County’s first inquest in nearly five years. King County Executive Dow Constantine paused the process in 2017, after victims’ families said jurors weren’t addressing their most vital questions about whether officers followed their department’s policies and training, and whether any officer committed wrongdoing. In the Butts case, jurors explicitly weighed in on those questions.

Jurors also heard some brief background about Butts: that he had a young daughter, a job, and was in school at the time of his death. Adrien Leavitt is one of the attorneys appointed to represent the Butts family.

“Even though it was a limited amount of information about who Damarius was, from the family’s perspective, it was just so critical that he was shown to be a full person — especially as the family sat through two weeks of testimony, and sounds and images of his last moments,” Leavitt said.

New support for victims' families

This was also the first case in which a victim’s family had lawyers appointed from the county’s Department of Public Defense. La Rond Baker, another attorney for the Butts family, said families had to pay for an attorney or had no representation before the changes took effect.

“If I had lost a loved one to police violence, I would want the opportunity to hear all this information and know I’d have attorneys by my side, who can ask the questions that need to be asked,” Baker said.

Baker said she was heartened by a few aspects of this case. One is that the jurors seemed to bring a skeptical eye to police testimony.

Officer Elizabeth Kennedy testified that Butts fired first, and she returned fire. Yet all eight jurors found that inconclusive, saying it was “unknown” who fired first.

Baker said Butts’ family attended every part of the proceeding over the past several years. She said they wanted the public to see the graphic photos taken of Damarius Butts’ handcuffed body on a bloodstained floor after the exchange of gunfire concluded.

“He was left in a locked room for 48 minutes. That they sent in a robot, that they threw a flashbang, and that they drug him out of the room. A dog drug him out of the room. I think they wanted the public to see what they felt was a horror,” Baker said.

Officers testified that once Butts fell to the ground behind some wooden pallets, they were unable to determine whether he still presented a threat to them. Officers also testified that they believed they were going to be killed during the exchange of gunfire, and that they blamed themselves when their colleague Hudson Kang was shot in the face and crumpled to the ground.

Officer Kennedy testified that after she was shot in her ballistic vest, she argued with her supervisor, who told her to leave and get medical attention.

“Part of that was because I felt it was my failure, that I didn’t stop the threat and because of that, Officer Kang was shot. And I didn’t want on my watch to see another officer or another person shot or hurt. And I didn’t want to leave that scene until I knew it was secure for everyone,” Kennedy said.

Law enforcement concerns with new process

Ted Buck is one of the attorneys who represented the four Seattle officers who fired at Butts. Buck said the officers are pleased at the jury findings in this case. But he said this new inquest process is unfair to the officers and at cross-purposes with itself.

Buck said King County wants inquests to create a factual record, and at the same time they’re requiring officers to give testimony that can be used to bring criminal charges against them. Buck said the county should leave criminal charges to prosecutors, and create a process that is focused on informing the public.

“I think that it is essential to trust in our department and in our law enforcement structure,” he said. “But to try to have it do so many different things, including potential criminal assessments, is simply overreaching.”

Buck said even though involved officers can be subject to a subpoena, he believes some may refuse to testify in future cases, because they are concerned about self-incrimination.

And he said that will be a loss to the fact-finding goal.

“The only way the community will ever know exactly what happened and why that individual is dead is if that officer can get on the stand without threat of criminal prosecution, and tell the story of what happened," he said.

The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that officers can invoke their Fifth Amendment rights on a question-by-question basis while giving testimony.

The inquest into Butts' death was accessible in new ways to the public. People could attend in person but also listen via an audio livestream and a video archive updated each day. There’s currently a backlog of nearly 60 cases awaiting an inquest in King County.

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